Chapter 3

Fitzwilliam Charming of ten thousand a year was quite bored. He had not found anyone to converse with in the present assembly. This was not from want of girls in his vicinity attempting to make conversation, he simply was not interested in most of them. Arabella and Frederica were doing their best to be noticed at the behest of their mother. They had managed to remain trivial and shallow throughout the evening so far, and thus were quite popular with the single men who were in the market for a wife.

Mr Charming had made the grave mistake of travelling without a companion and therefore had to attempt to socialise alone. Thankfully, the town's people were not entirely unknown to him. He was acquainted with Mr Wellesley, Esq., the Master of ceremonies at this particular event, and his son Richard. This did put him slightly more at ease and meant that he had friends who could introduce him. However they were both currently occupied with dancing. An activity that Mr Charming was stoically not involved in. His given surname seemed quite counter-intuitive when compared to his character. Although handsome, his charisma depended on an air of mystery carefully cultivated by being serious at all times and avoiding fun whenever possible. This was a skill that he had learned from his father, who was a disastrously self-important and serious man and again later from his unbearably haughty aunt after his father's passing. Indeed his fortune was his misfortune. Through his happy circumstance, he had learned the virtues of looking down one's nose at more common townspeople, like the inhabitants of Gladding.

"Mr Charming, can you not be enticed to dance?" Asked a rosy-cheeked Mr Wellesley. Mr Wellesley was, as always, greatly invigorated by the general bonhomie and exercise of dancing.

"I dare say I cannot," he responded. He wondered how he had been convinced by the grey-haired man before him to attend this event in the first place.

"Come, come. I have some acquaintances that I wish for you to meet," the older man replied with gregarious jollity. "May I introduce Mrs Hearth and her two daughters, Miss Arabella and Miss Frederica?"

Mr Charming stood up and bowed curtly whilst the three women before him curtsied.

"Good evening."

"A pleasure to make your acquaintance." Mrs Hearth said. "It is so nice to know that Hithersford has a master at last. How have you found Gladding thus far, Mr Charming?"

"Unobjectionable, indeed the countryside has some endearing qualities. Although it is not quite comparable to London."

"There is something to be said for the fresh country air I daresay, Mr Charming."

"Indeed, just because it is the country does not mean that it is lacking in life and culture," added Mrs Hearth tersely, almost forgetting her ultimate goal; his marrying one of her daughters.

Mr Wellesley, who not a man without intuition, sensed the disturbance of pleasant conversation and attempted to steer them towards a less turbulent topic.

"Mr Charming, after seeing the attendance tonight could you be persuaded to hold a ball yourself at Hithersford?" Mrs Hearth née Haughton's eyes gleamed at the question. Such an opportunity would be a boon for her girls.

"I confess that I had not thought on the idea. I must declare that I find it highly unlikely."

"Come, come Mr Charming. After seeing such a display of culture and energy. Gladding is by no means London but we can offer much excitement. In fact, Mr Charming could you not be persuaded to make a dance partner for one of these lovely young ladies?" The elderly man asked hopefully. Arabella turned beet red and her sister became all silliness.

"I would indeed greatly enjoy a dance partner. As always men are scarce," Arabella said through her blush.

"I am afraid I must decline. I do not have the temperament to dance and have made it a habit to do it the least amount possible. If you would excuse me." He bowed and took his leave.

"Indeed, he is a very strange sort of man. But wealthy," Mr Wellesley said

"Wealth does cover a multitude of sins," Mrs Hearth née Haughton replied.

She turned to her daughters. "You know what you must do. I myself must go to entertain Mr Harrow."

The now two times a widow, floated over towards her willing prey, making the younger girls in the hall seem clumsy next to her effortless poise. Although Mr Harrow was an intelligent man, he was very much undeserving of her charms and wit, given that he little of both. His mind was logical and turgid with nothing to leaven it. But he was a profitable partner and therefore, highly desirable in the eyes of Mrs Hearth né Haughton.

Lucinda made good time in her carriage and made it to the ball within minutes. She was attracting attention, never had such a spectacle graced Gladding before. Even Mr Charming's arrival paled into insignificance compared to the extravagance of her gold carriage and white stallions.

She felt a sudden surge of panic which she quickly attempted to stifle and hide behind a facade of calm. What if I am recognised? she wondered to herself, dreading her stepmother's reaction. However, she had come this far and stoically decided that she would face whatever consequences would befall her, were she discovered.

This was serendipitous given that she was late in the way of the rich and fashionable, and therefore made quite an entrance.

The ball was already in full force and at the heighth of merriment. However many a head turned in Lucinda's direction. Although she was known to almost every person in the building, not one of them recognised such was the opulence of her attire not to mention the beneficial effects that magic had in keeping her identity unknown.

"Who on earth is that?" Arabella asked after finding her mother engaging in conversation with Mr Harrow.

"I don't believe I have ever seen her before. But take heed, my girls, she is your competition." Indeed every man, with the notable exception of Mr Charming, was thus transfixed by the beautiful creature before them.

Mr Wellesley was the first to recover. He bustled over, making it his business to make the newcomer welcome.

"Good evening," he pronounced with a deep bow. "I do not believe we have been introduced. I am Mr Wellesley, Esq. Welcome, Miss…?"

Lucinda hesitated for a moment. But thinking back on where she often fell asleep after a long day's work.

"Miss… Miss Cinders."

"Well, Miss Cinders, please come and enjoy the festivities."

An array of food and drink was provided and Lucinda availed herself of the various dishes. Once she realised that she was quite unrecognisable to all she relaxed. In fact the whole ordeal became quite amusing as Mr Wellesly insisted on introducing her, as any good host should, to all his friends and acquaintances most of all she already knew quite well.

The pinnacle of irony is when he introduced her to her own stepmother and stepsisters, all three of whom were very displeased with her presence.

"Is it not strange, Miss Cinders seems terribly familiar although I am sure we have never met before," Mr Wellesley guffawed.

The three other women tittered in agreement.

"How serendipitous that you should arrive in Gladding within such close proximity of Mr Charming's arrival," Frederica all but sneered.

"Who?" Lucinda asked, forgetting entirely the reason for the ball's existence.

"You don't know him?" Arabella exclaimed in astonishment.

"Oh gracious me, I must introduce you," Mr Wellesley said. He solicitously guided Lucinda towards the man of the hour. Mr Charming had retreated to the card room where he would be in peace amongst the older men and their cigars. But it was not to be. Mr Wellesley's son was dispatched to go and alert the men in the card room of the beautiful newcomer's presence. Perhaps it was Richard Wellesley infectious enthusiasm or something of the magic that surrounded the whole affair, but within minutes the Card room was empty and Mr Charming had been rousted out of his hiding place. Mr Wellesley took this opportunity to pounce on him.

"Mr Charming, I would like to introduce you to a Miss Cinders."